Lessons from History 3

Rev Malcolm Kinnear continues his investigations

The Famous Rev Dr ALEXANDER STEWART  LLD or  Nether Lochaber


Stewart wrote in 1890 to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries about a talisman or a stone of healing.

It had been shown him by Mr MacGregor, a keeper at Kinlochbeg. (There are people in Kinlochleven today from the same family).

Apparently it had come from MacGregor’s great grandmother, who in turn had acquired it from family members older than she. He was aware that a form of words had been used in connection with it, but did not recall what these were.

It had been found on the head of a toad. Stewart was able to draw on other knowledge to confirm the likelihood of such a story.

The Gaelic name was, Stewart says, was Buadhag, and a longer form was Clach-Bhuadhach or Clach-Leighis.

He had also learned of a typical incantation in Gaelic used with such things from his local knowledge. They were for the healing of diseases in people and animals. Translated into English, the lengthy incantation ‘prayer’ invokes the names of Bridgit, Mary and the twelve apostles and of the Trinity.

Stewart’s breadth of interests make him a most appealing character. He had a keen eye for observing the natural world. A mackerel with a malformation of its jaw was to him worth reporting and writing about. One day an angler had kindly gifted a pike to the manse kitchen. On gutting it a beautiful broach was found in the fish’s stomach: indeed the angler had been unconsciously generous.

On another occasion once gutted a cod was found to bear in its stomach a cob tobacco pipe. (I am not sure whether that would have made the family dinner that day into one of smoked fish!) Nether-Lochaber was more interested in the rest of the cod’s stomach, which consisted of more than one whiting, already in a state of partial decomposition, and he observed that they appeared to have been swallowed tail first.

Stewart, or ‘Nether-Lochaber’ would often quote from literature, classical and modern. He had a keen amateur interest in the weather and the sky at night. 

His great passion was Gaelic language and literature. Stewart was invited to speak to the Inverness Gaelic Society in 1872, and travelled by steamer for the occasion. His speech was received with much enthusiasm. He urged them to publish as much as they could, and then ‘sat down amidst loud cheers’.

Stewart himself translated Gaelic verse and this was published.

 His interest in Gaelic verse and Gaelic culture led him to write a preface to James Logan’s The Scottish Gael (1876; reprint Edinburgh, Duncan, 2003). He had known Logan personally, and wrote a memoir of him. He dealt with a troubled chapter in the man’s life with a genuine and gentle pastoral manner, with the beautiful remark that he ‘died as a sinner ought to die, penitent as to his many transgressions, and with a firm belief in the mercy of God through Jesus Christ our Lord’. 

With his keen interest in Gaelic poetry and culture, Stewart was one of those who laboured for the start of the ‘Mod’ whose origins are in Oban, in 1891.  He was one of those who campaigned for Gaelic to be taught in Highland schools.

As a parish minister Stewart came in the period not long after the Disruption which led to a strong Free Church presence in the area. Many of the parish church congregation adhered to the newer denomination when John Macmillan, minister of the Parliamentary Church of Ballachulish and Ardgour joined the Free Church in 1843. Over his long ministry Stewart built up the parish church again in these places. In the mid 1850s the Free Church in North Ballachulish had a congregation of 160 communicants; in 1877 a separate congregation was added south of Loch Leven to serve Glencoe. But the numbers adhering to the Free Church in North Ballachulish did not keep up, and was 33 in 1900. Over the years various Free Church ministers came and went. Not long after Stewart came to this area, Rev Robert McGillivray was transferred from Hope Street Glasgow; he had family connections to Kilmallie. He was one of the first batch of students to train at New College Edinburgh, the Free Church’s new flagship theological college set up after the Disruption. He remained here at Onich until his untimely death in 1865, aged just 40 leaving Isabella, his wife and a young family. His sixth child had been born only weeks before. Robert had never enjoyed the best of health. During his time here was caught up to some degree in the wave of evangelical ‘revival’ of 1860, that affected some parts of the West Highlands including around here. This was a powerful sense of God’s presence, a sense of God’s Spirit coming down to bless people with unusual efficacy, and moving people to heartfelt expressions of religious feeling. Such revival experiences happened in Scottish church life from time to time, they came in waves that spread across the land, and that of 1858-61 spread from Ulster into Scotland and into many localities. McGillivray preached with great intensity, moving people with appeals to those without Christ in their lives. In later decades the revival movement inspired The Faith Mission with its strong commitment to the Highlands. Such waves of enthusiasm seemed to have less impact on Church of Scotland congregations.        

 The most long serving Free Church colleague in Onich during Stewart’s time was J A S McCaskill, who was ordained to North Ballachulish in 1884. McCaskill had come originally from Soay, off Skye, and had studied at Glasgow Free Church College.

Parish ministry was so different then as compared to now. There would be some trips for Alexander Stewart up to Fort Augustus for presbytery meetings, but not all that often, and far fewer meetings and committees than nowadays. Stewart did not have many kirk session meetings, perhaps just one a year, in both places, usually to coincide with the late summer communion season, at which it was the occasion to present new communicants.

His last session clerk at Onich was Mr Fraser, who resided at The Schoolhouse. In the 1890s the kirk session minutes record elders as Mr William McPhee (Onich) and Duncan MacDougall (Inchree), Ewen Cameron (Ballachulish), and David Colquhoun. I wonder if their descendants are represented locally.

‘Nether-Lochaber’ served the church here faithfully for half a century.

This project on Alexander Stewart is not complete, but I conclude that he was a man who contributed greatly to Scottish life, a man of broad interests and achievements, a man of genuine human warmth, with a pastoral feeling and strong Christian conviction.